Some Considerations of the Term ‘Imam’ in the Holy Qur’an

By Dilshad Keshwani


In studying the concept of Imamah, the question as to what is the basis of this fundamental concept that is perceived so differently by different branches of Islam becomes foremost and even enigmatic. If one examines the etymology of the term Imam, it comes from the Arabic root ‘Amma’ which has a number of shades of meaning, such as, to precede, to lead the way, to lead by example, to lead a congregation in prayer and so on. [1] Thus, Imam means a model, an examplar, a teacher, a guide or a path. In order to clarify and elaborate the differences of perception between different sects of Islam in regard to the concept of Imamah, it becomes necessary to examine the primary source which is the Holy Qur’an.

The first logical step in this effort would be to study those verses of the Qur’an which directly refer to the term ‘Imam.’  The term Imam is used seven times in the singular and five times in the plural form in the Holy Qur’an. It is not, however, used in the same sense every time. The different shades of meaning which it indicates therefore needs to be analysed. Accordingly, these verses may be classified into five groups in consonant with its different meanings.


In the first group, the word Imam is used for the Prophets and leaders in an honorific and positive sense. The verses which may be classified as belonging to this group are as follows: (1) 2:124, (2) 21:73, (3) 32:24 (4) 28:5 (5) 25:74 and (6) 26:12.

In this particular group of verses where the term conveys the sense of a Prophet or a Leader, 2:124 may be cited:

“And (remember) when his Lord tried Ibrahim with certain words, then he fulfilled them. He said: ‘Verily, I make you Imam for the mankind.’ Ibrahim said, ‘and of my offspring?’ He (Allah) said: ‘My covenant will not reach the unjust’.”

Many implications can be drawn from this verse. Firstly, the term Imam refers directly and unambiguously to Prophet Ibrahim (AS). Secondly, one of the ideas also being conveyed is that, byfulfilling the test Prophet Ibrahim created an example for his followers and Allah made him an Imam. Thirdly, when Allah made him an Imam, Prophet Ibrabim inquired whether there would be Imams from amongst his progeny, and Allah replied that His covenant would not reach the unjust, which means that the unjust ones may be the usurpers, but may never be the rightful Imams. Fourthly, the making of a rightful Imam is not the function of ordinary beings, but only that of Allah, as it is declared: “Verily, I make you an Imam.” The same idea is expressed in other verses like in 21:73, where it is revealed: “We made them Imams” and in 32:24, where it says: “We made Imams from amongst them.” Such direct references, as have been quoted above, assist in the derivation of the idea that the rightful Imams are Divinely designated and that they are from the progeny of Prophet Ibrahim. Hence, Hazrat ‘Ali (AS) the first manifest Imam was from the progeny of Hazrat Ibrahim and he was designated the Imam by Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) at Allah’s command. Each and every Imam from the progeny of Hazrat ‘Ali  and Hazrat Bibi Fatimah (AS) is designated or nominated by nass by the preceding Imam.

The second verse of the same group is as follows:

“And We made them Imams guiding men by Our command and We sent them inspiration to do good deeds and to establish regular prayers and to practise regular charity and they serve us.”  (21:73)

Besides conveying the idea that it is Allah who designates the rightful Imams, this verse also pinpoints the fact that Allah is the absolute source of their guidance and inspiration for mankind. An examination of the context in which the above verse is placed reveals that it refers to the progeny of Prophet lbrahim.

In verse 32:24, it is revealed that:

“And We made Imams among them to guide by Our command as they were steadfast (in the calamities) and they were quite certain of Our signs.”

This and the verses quoted earlier confirm that the institution of Imamah has its basis in the Holy Qur’an.

The phrase in the above verse: “We made Imams among them” conveys another aspect of the concept of Imamah, i.e. the Imams are as men amongst the members of their own community. They are from amongst human beings just as the Prophets were also as men amongst fellow men. We also find a reference wherein the Prophets and their progeny prayed to Allah to make them the Imams to lead the righteous, as it is revealed in 25:74,

“And those who pray: Our Lord! Grant unto us wives and progeny who will be the comfort of our eyes and make us Imams to lead the righteous.”

Allah also mentions in 28:5,

“And We intend to bestow favour upon those who were considered weak in the land, and to make them the Imams and to make them heirs.”

The Imams’ importance lies in the spiritual knowledge, whether they are physically strong and materially rich or otherwise. Nasiruddin Tusi, the Alamut philosopher, demonstrates the importance of spiritual knowledge over physical strength or material wealth in his Tasawwurat by saying that if someone, by superior might, would seize supreme authority over the whole world, it may be possible that a wolf or lion may overcome him, but no one would say that the wolf or lion is superior to him. Thus, spiritual knowledge is superior to physical might. [3]


The superiority of the Imam among other things is in the field of knowledge as it is explained in 36:12:

“Verily, We shall give life to the dead and We record that which they send before and that which they leave behind and of all things have We taken account in a manifest Imam.”

Many commentators of the Holy Qur’an translate the last two words of this verse Imamim Mubin as ‘Manifest Book’, though it should literally be translated as ‘Manifest Imam’. They translate it in this manner, because they hold that the whole verse gives the connotation that the deeds of the people will be recorded in a book (and assume that it cannot be taken account in the manifest person of the Imam). Tabari also interprets the word Imam in this verse as ‘the guarded tablet’ or ‘a book of evidence and record’. [4] However, Sayyidna Naisr-i Khusraw refutes such an interpretation in his Khwan-al-Ikhwan, [5] questioning as to how it is possible that all knowledge be written on the ‘guarded tablet’ or in a book of evidence and record. Even if the connotation of the verse suggests that the term Imamim Mubin refers to a book, the study of the Holy Qur’an also reveals that there are two ‘books’ to which Allah refers, in 56:77-80:

“Verily it is a Qur’an most honourable. In a Book well-guarded. None touches it save those who are pure. Sent down by the Lord of the worlds.”

Here a distinction is made to demonstrate that there are indeed two books. The Book (Qur’an) is an honourable book and it is in a well-guarded Book i.e. the living Prophet and after him the Imam of the time. It indicates that the inner meaning, the correct interpretation of the Qur’an is with the living Prophet and after him the living Imams.

A clear distinction also emerges between a ‘silent book’ and a ‘guide If we study the verse 23:62, where it is ordained:

“On no soul do we place a burden greater than it can bear; Before us is a book which speaks the truth, and they will not be darkened/misguided.”

Here only the living Prophets and the successors to their knowledge (the Imams) are referred to, who are always in the midst of the people to guide them. It is far from Allah’s mercy that He should have the speaking book with Himself (in His presence) and reveal it only on the day of judgement, so that it would only facilitate the testimony of the deeds of the people and their interrogation and consequent punishment or reward Thus a guide must always exist in the world, as a Prophet or his successor, the Imam of the time. Hence, when “Imamim Mubin” is mentioned in 36:12, it refers to this guide, in which everything is recorded. This “recording” is also in a figurative sense and it implies that the Imam has been blessed with perfect knowledge of everything, which obviously includes the knowledge of the deeds of the people.


Quite different from the first six verses quoted, where Imam means a divinely ordained leader who is directly descended from the Prophet Muhammad, in the next group of verses, the term Imam is used for the leaders of the infidels. One among these verses is 9:12, where it is revealed:

“And if they violate their oaths after their covenant, and taunt you for your religion, then fight the Imams of the infidelity. Verily there is no oath for them, so that they may be restrained.”

Similarly in verse 28:41, it is said:

“And we made them Imams who invite to the fire and on the day of judgement they shall not be helped.”

The above two verses, referring to the leaders of infidels, indicate a common theme. In 9:12 it is mentioned that if they (people) violate their oaths, then the Prophet should fight the leaders of infidelity. This is so because their leaders were the source of infidelity and they should be fought first. Conversely, it implies that the true Leaders (Imams) are the source of righteousness. In the second verse of this group, that is in 28:41 it is revealed that those who are not righteous leaders invite their followers to the ‘Fire’ (Nar). However, the converse implies that the true Imams invite their followers to the ‘Light’ (Nur). This is clearly shown in the verse 14:1, that the Holy Qur’an was revealed by Allah to Prophet Muhammad so that he could lead people to the Nur:

“A.L.R. (Alif Lam Re) A Book which We have revealed unto you, in order that you might lead mankind out of the depths of darkness into light, by leave of their Lord, to the way of (Him) the exalted in Power, worthy of all praise.” [7]

The leader of the infidels who lead their followers to the fire, however, apparently receive much success. The reason for this, as portayed in the Qur’an, is that these leaders have pomp and physical power which sometimes their contemporaries who are the true Leaders (Prophets or Imams) may not have. This attracts the followers of the former, as is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an:

“And Musa said: OurLord, You have indeed bestowed on Pharaoh and his chiefs, splendour and wealth in the life of the present so, our Lord, they mislead (men) from Your path “- 10.88

Another reference is also made in the Qur’an inverses 43:51-53, where it is revealed that Fir’aun (Pharaoh) tried to proclaim his superiority over Prophet Musa (AS) by showing to his people that Egypt belonged to him and rivers flowed under his palace whereas there were no gold bracelets bestowed on Musa and he could hardly even express himself. Many people were convinced by these arguments and were deceived by Fir’aun whose ultimate end is shown in 11:97-98,

“They followed the command of Fir’aun and the command of Fir’aun was not righteous. He will go before his people on the day of judgement and lead them into the fire, but woeful indeed will be the place to which they are led.”

Thus it becomes clear that the word Imam is used in the Qur’an in the general sense of a leader, a personality who leads either to a straight path or leads astray. Nasir Khusraw shows the distinction between the true Imam and the unjust claimants when he remarks that whoever usurps the place of the rightful Imm, causes his own destruction. Just as amongst many oxen, even though one ox may become more powerful, yet, it would never be able to protect other oxen. If it claims to be their leader, it will also perish. But if there is a man to look after them, he will protect them from wild animals and take them to the pastures and bring them back to their resting place in time. [8] The true Imam, although a human being, is yet different from other human beings because of the spiritual knowledge which he alone possesses. Thus the unjust claimants cannot equate themselves with the rightful Imam despite their wordly strength.


After discussing the verses where the term Imam is used, meaning either a just or an unjust leader, we shall now deal with two verses where the term Imam is used to connote a book. In the verse 11:17 it is revealed:

“Is he then (like him) who has a clear proof from his Lord and a witness from Him and preceded by the Book of Musa, an Imam (a guide) and a mercy? They believe therein, but those of the sects that reject it, the fire will be their meeting place. Be not then in doubt thereon, for it is the truth from your Lord, yet many among men do not believe.”

Here the Book revealed to Prophet Musa, i.e. the Taurat (Torah) is referred to as Imam (guide) and mercy. Similarly, it is referred to as Imam in 46:12:

“And before this, was the Book of Musa as an Imam (a guide) and a mercy and this book (the Qur’an) confirms (it) in the Arabic tongue to admonish the unjust and as glad tidings to those who do right.”

The word is used in both the verses to mean a guide and refers to a Book, especially the one that is revealed to a Prophet. In Arabic, and in many other languages, a thing is metaphorically named according to the function it carries out, for example, a camel carrying water is itself called Mashak (the pot carrying water) and so on. Therefore, it can be understood that the word Imam used for a revealed Book, connotes its function as a guide. [9] Apart from this, the term Imam in verse 15:79 implies the meaning of  ‘a path’:

“We inflicted retribution on them, and indeed both (the cities) were on a manifest Imam (highway).”

If one examines the context of this verse, it apparently refers to a place called Aika. In the time of Prophet Lut (AS) and Prophet Shu’aib (AS), the people who lived in Aika and the Cities of the Plain were rebellious. Allah punished them and the evidence of the ruins of their cities is still to be found between Arabia and Syria. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that the word Imam is used to mean highway (road, path). In fact, it is also interesting to see that the words like din, shariah, tariqa, madhhab, sirat all signify, in one sense or another, a path, e.g. din means a road, Shariah means a main road leading to a river (enabling the thirsty to drink water), tariqa means a path emerging out of the Shariah, madhhab means a highway, sirat means a road leading to a place of worship and furthermore, Ummah means a group of people moving towards a common destination under the guidance of a single leader and along a single road. In the pre-Islamic era, hadi was a man with a specialized knowledge of all the possible ways in the desert, whose profession was to lead man in the right path until they reached their destination safely. [10]

In the first six verses quoted herein, the term Imam connotes a leader and it may seem that there is a contradiction here, since in the above verses the term Imm also means a path. However, there is no contradiction, as such, as the word is again used in a figurative sense. We saw earlier that in Arabic metaphoric language, a camel carrying water is itself called Mashak (water bag). Similarly the leader i.e. Imam who shows the path himself is known as the path and through this path the recognition of Allah is achieved, as it is said in the Qura’n:

Verily, My Lord is on the straight path.”(11:56)


Lastly, in 17:71, the term Imam is used in the sense of a witness, i.e. the Imam will serve as a witness on behalf of his followers,

“Remember the day when We will summon every people with their Imam (leader-witness) then, whosoever is given his book in his right hand, these shall read their books and they shall not be dealt with (even) a shred unjustly.”

In this ayat the term Kull, ‘all’ is used, which indicates that every person (from Hazrat Adam’s progeny) will be summoned with his/her leader, and only then will Allah give judgement of either reward or punishment. It is implied that at all times, the righteous Imams and the false Imams will be there with whom their followers will be summoned, otherwise the word of Allah Himself would be false. The Imams who will be called with the people will bear witnesses to the actions of their followers. The rightful Imams will be witness of their faithful followers and the unjust Imams will accordingly testify for their followers. However, the implication is that one should hold fast to the rightful Imam for the benefit of one’s soul, because those who are not the true Imams will not be able to intercede for their followers’ actions. This is testified in the Qur’an in the following two verses:

“None shall have the power of intercession, but such who has received permission (or promise) from (Allah) The Most Gracious.” (19:87)


“And those whom they call upon besides Him have no authority for intercession, except he who bears witness of the truth and they (people) know (that)”. (43:86)

Thus the two verses make it clear that only the true Prophets and Imams bear witness to the truth and only they receive permission from Allah to intercede for their followers’ actions, whereas the unjust claimants of Imamah like Fir’aun, as we have already seen above in 11:97-98, would lead their followers towards the fire.


To conclude, among the various meanings of the word Imam in the Qur’an a guide or a leader seems to be the most generally applicable. A close observation of other meanings also reveals that they are related very closely to this basic meanings. For instance, the Book, the Path, the Witness imply as well as assume the meaning of leadership or guidance. Apart from deriving the basic meaning from the twelve ayats where the term Imam is used, several related concepts emerge, namely, that the true Imamah (the institution of rightful Imam) is from amongst the progeny of Prophet Ibrahim (AS), it is Divinely Designated and it always exists in this world.

Article publication date: August 11, 2010


Note: In most places, the translation of Qur’anic ayats is from The Holy Qura’n: Text, Translation and Commentary by Yusuf Ali. However, at some places the translation is the author’s. The Web site , provides numerous English translations of each Qur’anic verse as understood by different translators.


[1]. cf. Lane, E.W. : Arabic English Lexicon, p.9.
[2]. It is said that Hazrat Ibrahim  had a dream in which Allah asked him to sacrifice that which he loved most. Hazrat lbrahim prepared to sacrifice his son and fulfilled the test. cf. Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, pp. 154-155
[3]. Tusi, N. Tasawwurat, ch.24.
[4]. Tabari: Tafsir, p. 100, cf. Hunzai, F.M. “The Concept of Imam in the Qura’n and its Later Development”, Ilm, March 1979, Volume 4, Numbers 3 & 4.
[5]. op. cite p. 76.
[6]. Hunzai, N. Dhikr-i-Ilahi, p3
[7]. Prophet Musa was also asked to call his followers to the Light. The Holy Qur’an 14:5.
[8]. Nasir-i Khusraw, Wajh-i-din, ch. 1.
[9]. Hunzai N. Recognition of Imam, Eng. trans. unpublished.
[10]. Izutsu, T. God & Man in Qur’an p. 145.


Ahmed Ali, S.V., The Holy Qur’an, Text & Commentary, Karachi; 1964.

Arbery, A. J., The Koran Interpreted, 2-Vols. George, Allen & Unwin, London 1955.

Buhl F., Al-Kuran – Shorter Ency. of Islam London, 1974.

Hunzai, F. M., Concept of lmam in the Qur’an and its Later Development. Part 1 & 2, Ilm Vol 4. nos. 3 & 4 March, 1979, and July, 1979.

Hunzai, N., Recognition of Imam, Unpublished Part I & II

Hunzai, N., Dhikr-i-Ilahi, Canada

Ivanow, W., Imam and lsmailiyya, Shorter Ency. of Islam London, 1974.

Khusraw, Nasir., Khan-al Ikhvan, ed: Solar. A. H. Tehran, 1338.

Khusraw, Nasir., Wajh-i-Din; ed: Solar. A. H. Tehran, 1348.

Pickthall, M., The Meaning of Glorious Quran U.S.A., 1953.

Tusi, N., Tasawwurat ed and trans: Ivanow. W. Holland, 1950

Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an Text-Translation and Commentary, London, 1975.


This is an adapted version of the original article, The Term ‘Imam’ in the Holy Qur’an, which appeared in Ilm, December 1986, Volume 11, Number 1, published by the Shia Imami Ismaili Tariqah and Religious Education Board for the United Kingdom.


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10 thoughts on “Some Considerations of the Term ‘Imam’ in the Holy Qur’an

  1. Very well researched article from which we have gained an immense amount of knowledge. Your hard work is greatly appreciated.

  2. It was Sura 17:71 that led me back to the path of the Ismaili Tariqah…the 48th Imam once told my late uncle, Rai Shamdsuddin Ahamed, that the Imam would be there for his murids on the Day of the Judgment.

    Thank you Dilshad for this enlightening article.

  3. I grew up in the time of Ilm and I wish a literary publication such as that, small, concise, would be available to youth, professionals today….it’s a busy life. Having reminders and access to knowledge or items of discussion for perusal, is still necessary in a hard copy format.

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